Rural county puts land records on blockchain
Clerks in Wise County, Va., can create, store and access smart land records through a solution from Bloqable, the company developing the software.
A southwest Virginia county with about 40,000 residents situated near the Kentucky border is using blockchain for managing land records – the latest effort in 25 years of technological innovation.
“It comes from what many view as one of the least places to expect it,” Jack Kennedy, clerk of the Wise County and City of Norton Circuit Court, said of project. He’s behind the effort to create, store and access smart land records through a solution from Bloqable, the company developing the software.
Historically, land records have been managed with paper indices, but “we have modernized over the past quarter of a century to evolve to remote access to land records, electronic filing of land records,” Kennedy said. “This is just a continuation of the evolution, using more modern technology (e.g., blockchain) to create secure title opinions that can be ultimately utilized by local constituents, the banking industry, realtors and others to rapidly certify ownership of real property,” he said.
Previously, it would sometimes take April Huff, the county’s master deputy clerk of court, all day and trips to the courthouse to prepare an abstract of title, which is a report that summarizes a property’s history, including past owners, money owed on it and liens.
“You would have to search the grantor/grantee indexes by hand. Those are huge books – thick and heavy – and then you would go to each individual book that a document was in, and you would pull that and search that,” Huff said. “Going digital changed everything. I could stay at the office and do most of the work.”
Ultimately, the system, built on Amazon Web Services’ (AWS) Amazon Quantum Ledge Database (QLDB), will use machine learning and artificial intelligence to enable automatic generation of title abstractions, providing “the opportunity to push a button to get a 40-year title opinion, as opposed to hiring people to verify it,” Kennedy said. “Even if it is required to be verified by a human, it can be done much more rapidly,” he added.
The project has three parts. The first, which Bloqable delivered in June 2021, is a database of smart land records for Wise County and the city of Norton that make 40 years’ worth of data available in seconds. To date, more than 500 validated smart land records sit on the blockchain, according to David FitzGerald, the company’s founder and chief executive officer.
To create the records, which is the second part of the effort, the county is working land records employees and cohorts of about six interns at a time from local Southwest Virginia colleges who have been trained in abstracting with help from an e-learning curriculum developed at Old Dominion University. They open a browser interface and log into the cloud-hosted system. A wizard prompts them on the steps they need to take.
The first is to research the property identification numbers that are tied to every property and provided by Wise County and Norton through mxCourt, a platform Kennedy’s team helped build that allows court offices and users to collaborate, create, share, finalize, record, manage and search records, including land records. Interns collect information about the most recent deed, the address and a brief history of the property.
“The wizard prompts you with questions that you will answer and fill in to create a chain of custody that goes back at least 40 years, and then you add onto that chain,” FitzGerald said.
When the draft record is finished, it goes to Huff and her staff for validation, and then the approved record resides on QLDB. “Because it’s a block record on that chain, can never be changed, it can never be hacked, and when you have to modify information related to that property, it just goes on a new record on top of that historical record,” FitzGerald said. “It is judged by Wise County and Norton [land records] offices to be the truest understanding of that property that there is.”
The third aspect of the project is leveraging AI and ML. Bloqable and the county are in negotiations with Louisiana Tech University to provide supported ML, meaning support from the land records staff. They hope to roll this out this year and next, FitzGerald said.
“You end up having this base of knowledge experts who can instruct those machines how to improve the throughput on creating an accurate smart land record,” he said. “Once you’re able to scan the public records with optical character reading software and then you’re able to improve the creation of smart land records through supported machine learning, we will get to a point where the creation of these records is much faster than it can be today. Then, the burden of verification rests with the humans, like April and her staff, but it can be done at a much faster pace.”
Several grants totaling about $235,000 are supporting the blockchain project, including $85,000 from the Virginia Compensation Board’s Technology Trust Fund and $50,000 from the Virginia Coalfield Economic Development Authority, in addition to contributions from the NASA Space Grant Consortium.
The biggest benefit of all is building a more engaged and educated workforce, Kennedy said, noting that the University of Virginia’s College at Wise has a software engineering school that he’d like to tap for additional interns. “Blockchain is going to be used in so many different aspects of life going forward,” he said. “We’re going to see more use of nonfungible tokens in the future to secure records, and I think it’s just an ongoing evolution as the next generation of technology goes forward.”
Kennedy, who said on March 4 that he’s about 650 days from retirement, is no stranger to innovation. Other efforts the county has taken on under his leadership include acting as a testbed for drones to attract unmanned aerial vehicle makers to set up shop in the county, establishing the DEVELOP node with NASA for remote sensing for environmental management and beta testing Starlink, the satellite-based broadband service from SpaceX, owned by Elon Musk.
“We are working with Elon Musk on the largest concentration of Starlink accounts outside of Ukraine right now, I daresay,” Kennedy said.
This story was changed March 14 to clarify that the interns who participate in the project are students from local colleges located in Southwest Virginia who have been trained in abstracting in part with an e-learning curriculum developed by Old Dominion University's Instructional Design and Technology graduate program.
Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.